Interview with Ryan Haecker on Right Hegelianism and Christian Theology

Ryan Haecker is a scholar on the Christian theology of German Idealism,  analytic theology, and Catholic History. He and I set down to discuss how Hegel’s Christian context is oft not understood by many Hegelian thinkers.


C. Derick Varn: Why do you think Hegel’s relevance as a specifically Christian thinker has been downplayed over time?

Ryan Haecker: There is a long-standing reticence to acknowledge Hegel as a Christian theologian. Controversy surrounding the Christian and orthodox content of the philosophy of Hegel has swelled since before Hegel passed from the world in 1831: Hegel had already in his lifetime been accused of denying a personal God, logizing the Holy Trinity, theologizing history, eleaticizing Spinozism, Pantheism, materialism, idealism, reactionary conservatism, radical republicanism, Prussian nationalism, liberal cosmopolitanism and Bonapartist imperialism. Some of these allegations may be more warranted than others, but even a cursory glance through the diversity of allegations and appropriations which have been made of the philosophy of Hegel during and after his life testifies to the bewilderment, excitement, and animosity stirred up by Hegel’s philosophy. There are, to my mind, three primary reasons for this medley of bamboozlement and controversy: First, like no philosopher since Airstotle in the age of Alexander the Great, Hegel claimed, in the age of Napoleon, the imperial crown of sovereign philosophy by negating the conclusions of all hitherto existing philosophical systems, as well as asserting the superiority of his own doctrine – which simultaneously incorporated and appropriated the philosophies which he asserted himself to have superseded in thought. Second, Hegel announced the messianic and world-historical importance of his very own philosophy, which he held to have completed – as far as was possible in his own historical moment – the truth of religion and reason, that was only signified for imagination in the Christian Gospel. Ordinarily such claims would result in either confinement to a lunatic asylum or – as with Friederich Nietzsche – a struggle with immovable reality to the contrary that might well precipitate a mental collapse, but Hegel’s extraordinary claims were plausibly, as with those of Jesus Christ’s, fulfilled by extraordinary results. Third, there is the unmistakable circuitousness, complexity, and gothic intricacy of Hegel’s writings, which belabor scholars for years just as they baffle and frustrate casual readers. The consequence is a general unwillingness of most – even scholarly readers – to devote the considerable labor of thought required to grasp the central ideas of Hegelian philosophy. The grandness of Hegel’s self-estimation combined with the difficulty of his texts contributes to the suspicion and hostility towards the philosophy of Hegel among most thinkers, but especially among Christians for whom Hegel represents both the potential for the dialectical advancement, negation, and nullification of the central tenets of the Christian religion.

C.D.V.: What do you think is the key theological truth of Hegel?

R.H.: There is nothing in Hegel’s philosophy of Absolute Idealism which is not implicitly related to the Absolute, to theology, and to God. God is present from the first moment of sense-certainty, as the “richest and poorest truth,” to the complete realization, in thought, of the Absolute Idea. In the introduction to the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences Hegel wrote: “The objects of philosophy, it is true, are upon the whole the same as those of religion. In both the object is Truth, in that supreme sense in which God and God only is the Truth. Both in like manner go on to treat of the finite worlds of Nature and the human Mind, with their relation to each other and to their truth in God.” All thought from the barest manifold of intuition to the most majestic apprehension of the entire cosmos is ideal participation in the divine life of God. For Hegel as with Paul of Tarsus, God is Hen Kai Pan – All in All -in whom we all “live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In this regard, Hegel follows the ancient idealist tradition of Parmenides, Plato, Philo, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus; as well as the medieval mystics from Augustine and John Scotus of Eriugena to Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart and Joseph Boehme; and finally the modern idealists of Spinoza, Kant and Schelling.

Since the 13th century nominalists had overturned the great medieval synthesis of the Angelic Doctor Thomas Aquinas, theology had suffered from an ever-widening chasm between saecula (the sacred) and seculorum (the profane), Deus (God) and mundi (the World), Caelo (Heaven) andTerra (Earth). This is Lessing’s Chasm which characterizes the dualisms of modern philosophy. In the theology of Thomas Aquinas this chasm results from the transcendence of God’s simple unity over the composite created world; in the theology of John Duns Scotus this chasm was the consequence of the division between God’s necessary and accidental attributes, or between those things which are rationally necessary by divine reason and those things which are merely possible according to divine will; in the philosophy of Descartes this is the dualism of the perfect infinite incorporal God and the mechanistic corporal universe; in the philosophy of Leibniz this is the dualism of the Monad of Monads and the necessary cooperation of the infinite multiplicity of subordinate monads; in the philosophy of Spinoza, this is the dualism of thought and extension; and finally in the philosophy of Kant, this is the dualism of reason and intuition, concepts and percepts, and of the noumenal and the phenomenal realms. In every case, infinite Eleatic-Platonic simple transcendent One is opposed to finite multiple composite Milesian-Democritean atoms of material Nature. The ambition of the identity philosophy of Schelling and Hegel was conceived to be a purgative corrective to modernity’s infinite repetition of the antitheses of the infinite non-Ego with the finite self-positing of the Ego. Schelling writes:

“The genuinely speculative question remains: how may the absolutely One, the absolutely simple and eternal Will from which all things flow, expand into multiplicity and be reborn as a unity, i.e. into the moral world… The question would be an indispensable and unavoidable problem if this philosophy [of Fichte] actually made what is for it the Absolute into a principle as well – but it rather carefully guards against this and lets the whole of finitude be given to it, very conveniently along with the… common dogmatism that the Absolute is a result and something that needs a justification… What is the characteristic of this philosophy [of Fichte] is just that it has given new form to the age-old dichotomy between the infinite and the finite; but such forms may be legion – none lasts, and each carries impermanence within itself. It cannot found anything permanent. An enthusiasm that fancies itself to be great if it sets its own Ego up in its thoughts against the wild storms of elements, the thousand thousand suns and the ruins of the whole world, makes this philosophy popular; and also makes it dumb and hollow otherwise – a fruit of the age whose spirit has for a time exalted this empty form, until the age sinks back as its own ebb sets in, and the fruit along with it. What abides is only what supersedes all dichotomy; for only that is in truth One and unchangeably the same… Only what proceeds from the absolute unity of the infinite and finite is immediately and essentially capable of symbolic presentation; capable of true philosophy; of becoming religion, or an objective and eternal source of new intuition; a universal model of everything in which human action endeavors to portray the harmony of the universe.” – F. W. J. Schelling, On the Relationship of the Philosophy of Nature to the Philosophy in General, Kritisches Journal der Philosophie, I, no. 3, 1802

The philosophy of Spirit of G.W.F. Hegel can be conceived of as a dialectical reconciliation of the finite world of our ordinary experience with the infinite ideal life of the Absolute, which is God’s infinite being. The success of this reconciliation is meant to fulfill the promise, in thought, of the Christian religion and restore the august throne of speculative philosophy, or metaphysics, as the sovereign science: “The germ of Christianity was the feeling of separation of the world from God; its aim was the reconciliation with God -not through a raising of finitude to the infinite, but through the infinite’s becoming finite, or through God’s becoming man… All the symbols of Christianity exhibit the characteristic that they represent the identity of God with the world in images” (ibid.). The genuinely gnostic ambition of German Idealism is salvation, neither through faith or works alone, but through both together in the theoretical and fideistic praxis of philosophy, which is both devotion to God and love of holy wisdom – Hagia Sophia. Hegel considered himself a religious reformer. Yet unlike Luther, Hegel did not endeavor to widen but to reconcile the opposition of faith and reason; church and state; and man with God. He brought the sword of negativity down upon only those philosophies which maintained themselves in self-certain fixidity, refused to “tarry with the negative,” and thereby “blasphemed against the Holy Ghost.” Like Kant, Hegel’s purpose was irenic: to pacify the endemic strife of thought that tossed into ceaseless tumult the Republic of Letters – “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” (Mt. 5:9)

The key contributions of Hegelian philosophy to Christian theology corresponds  in a threefold way, to the persons of the Holy Trinity: First, the philosophy of Mind, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, is Christocentric as it aims at nothing less than the approach of the subject consciousness with the eternal reason of God: this culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the final moment of religious consciousness; the dark night of the soul; the speculative Good Friday in which God is dead, that concludes the logical sequence of historical religions; dissolves all nature, objectivity, and natural religion into the subjective stages of consciousness; and reconstructs each and all according to the Spirit of Pentecost, the apostolic Church, and the Gospel of speculative philosophy. Second, the philosophy of logic, in the Science of Logic, is theocentric as it deduces the three persons of the Holy Trinity from logical generation of the heavenly Father into the three moments of Being, Essence and Concept; which come to be manifested in the encyclopedic divisions of Logic, Nature and Spirit; and which are altogether united in the ceaseless eternal self-loving – immanent and economic – logical procession of the Holy Trinity. Third, the philosophy of history, in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy and the Philosophy of History, is pnuematocentric as it illustrates the efflorescence and vital activity of the Holy Spirit as logic directs the sequence of events in history through the temporal realization of the eternal providence of God. The triadic division of Hegelian philosophy; into Father (Logic), Son (Mind) and Holy Spirit (History); is altogether integrally united in the Science of Logic, in which Hegel intends to demonstrate nothing less than the Trinitarian logic and essence of the Triune God. The result must, if correct, be at once the culmination and resolution of centuries of antitheses in theology, science and philosophy, and of no little interest to all speculative thinkers of some spiritual depth.

C.D.V.: Do you think reading Hegel without this Christian background has led to a profound misunderstanding of his work?   If so, what are the key misunderstandings?

R.H.: There is both an interpretation of the philosophy of Hegel in which his “Christian background” is denied, as well as an interpretation  in which his “Christian background” is acknowledged and yet considered inessential to his philosophy. In every case, the genuine question must be, not whether Hegel is acknowledged to have believed in Christianity or to have lived in a largely Christian nation, but rather whether his philosophy is essentially Christian. Hegel did not understood philosophy to be Christian because he himself was a Christian, any more than he held philosophy to be German because he was himself a German (although he once remarked that he would teach philosophy to speak German). Rather Hegel held religion to be essentially reasonable, and reason to be essentially religion, just as Christianity is essentially philosophical, and philosophy is essentially Christian. The opposite categories are altogether united in the speculative identity of the Absolute Idea. Hegel writes in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion:

“The human spirit, in its innermost nature is not something so divided up that two contradictory elements might subsist together in it. If discord has arisen between intellectual insight and religion, and is not overcome in knowledge, it leads to despair. This despair is reconciliation carried out in a one-sided manner. The one side is cast away, and the other left alone held fast; but man cannot win true peace in this way. The one alternative is, for divided spirit to reject the demands of the intellect and try to return to simple religious feeling. To this, however, the spirit can only attain by doing violence to itself, for the independence of consciousness demands satisfaction and to renounce independent thought is not within the power of a healthy mind. Religious feeling becomes yearning hypocrisy, and retains the moment of non-satisfaction. The other alternative is a one-sided attitude of indifference toward religion, which is either left unquestioned, or ultimately attacked and opposed. That is the course followed by shallow spirits.”

Thus, it is a misunderstanding to suppose that Christianity is somehow capriciously attached to the philosophy of Hegel, as an afterthought brought in through the window. Schelling and Hegel wrote:

 “We do not even recognize as philosophy any view which is not already religion in its principle, [and] we reject any cognition of the Absolute which emerges merely as a result – we reject any view which thinks of God in himself in some empirical connection; precisely because the spirit of ethical life, and of philosophy, is for us one and the same; we reject any doctrine according to which the object of the intellect must, like nature, be just a means to the ethical life, and must on that account be deprived, in itself stripped of the inner substance of that life.” (Kritisches Journal der Philosophie, 1804)

In his celebrated three critiques of reason, Immanuel Kant believed himself to disclose the essence, potential and limits of reason itself. Following the Late-Medieval nominalist opposition between faith and reason, Kant held faith (glauben) to consist in beliefs that were wholly unsupported by reason (wissen). Hence, the limits of reason fenced in rational understanding just as much as they fenced out irrational belief, so that true religion, like true philosophy, must remain within the secure battlements of self-critical reason – the limits of reason alone. Kant defined the limits of reason to be the antinomies, or paralogisms of reason, which he held to necessarily arise from the uncritical speculation of ‘metaphysics’ beyond the sure lighthouses of analytic deduction and the safe harbors of sensory intuition: inferences of synthetic apriori concepts that, qua synthetic, contain the content of sensory intuition and yet purport to describe objects which are properly supersensible (e.g. the soul, the cosmos and God) cannot be reliably trusted: for every dogmatic supersensible inference, any equally valid yet contradictory inference may be affirmed; and the possibility of affirming valid contradictions results in antinomies, or a contradictions in the valid exercise of the laws of logic; such that reasoning which trespasses beyond self-critical boundaries ineluctably obliterates itself in self-contradictory paralogisms.  In this way, Kant anticipated the Verification Principle of A.J. Ayer and the Analytic Positivists in holding that consistent, i.e. non-contradictory, synthetic a priori truths of reason must be either analytically self-evident or empirically observable. This Kantian prohibition rendered knowledge of supersensible a priori concepts (e.g. the soul, the cosmos and God) totally inadmissible as theoretical knowledge, even while they were necessary for practical reason of ethics, politics and religion.

The consequence of the Kantian prohibition on supersensible a priori concepts was a series of dualisms, between reason and intuition, concepts and percepts, theory and practice, a priori and a posteriori truths, and the noumenal and phenomenal realms. Kant struggled to reconcile these dualisms in the Critique of Judgment, in which the faculty of aesthetic judgment was intended to mediate between reason and intuition, yet only succeeded in producing many more speculative paradoxes. The task of Kant’s immediate successors; e.g. Reinhold, Jacobi, Niebuhr, and Fichte; was to systematize the prolific yet disconnected medley of concepts expounded in Kant’s critical philosophy. This required a single axiom, or ur-form, to carry the weight as a cornerstone for the whole edifice of Kantian philosophy. Imagination, faith, practical reason, consciousness and the transcendental Ego were all proclaimed as sovereign axioms in a furious succession which culminated in the 1796 Wissenschaftslehre of J.G. Fichte. F.W.J. Schelling’s decisive contribution was to oppose the self-positing Ego of Fichte with the Absolute non-Ego of Spinoza’s Nature – Deus sive Natura – and unite both together in the speculative identity of the Absolute Ego, the idea of God. Thus did post-Kantian idealism return to St. Anselm of Canterbury’s “highest idea… than which nothing greater can be conceived.” (the Proslogion, 1078)

After Schelling’s departure from Jena in 1804, G.W.F. Hegel carried his erstwhile mentor’s Identitie-Philosophie even further in his drafted speculative systems. This formative activity culminated in the 1807 publication of the Phenomenology of Spirit, which departed from Schelling in two important respects: the Absolute Idea was placed at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning, of the speculative system; and the deduction of the concepts was dialectical and paraconsistent rather than analytic and consistent. The Kantian antinomies of reason compelled post-Kantian philosophers to choose between reason that was limited to empiricism and analyticity, or somehow embrace the self-contradictoriness of the  antinomies. Hegel departed from Fichte and Schelling; for whom the resolution of the antinomies was either simply self-posited or an ineffable aesthetic intuition; and boldly affirmed that all speculative reasoning must be self-contradictory, paraconsistent and dialectical. The operative principle of dialectic is contrary propositions (i.e. contra-diction). In the philosophy of Hegel, however, ‘contradiction’ does not simply refer to the affirmation and denial of the same proposition; for there can be no ‘fixed propositions’ at all; but rather to the contrary opposition of the conflicting properties of concepts which results in their mutual negation; and this negativity imparts dynamic self-movement to concepts. Just as Plato conceived the cosmos as a world-soul in the likeness of an animal organism in the Timaeus, so does Hegel conceive of concepts as ideal organisms in the full negativity of dynamic self-motion. The Absolute Idea is consequently, like Plato’s world-soul and Schelling’s Weltgeist, the self-contradictory concept of concepts – Forma Formarum – which absolutely envelops and supercedes all possible concepts, all thought and being, as that Reason (nous) which rules the world.

Reading Hegel without consideration of his ‘Christian context’ results in a profound misunderstanding because such readings neglect, dismiss, or diminish the essential role of Christianity in Hegel’s mature philosophical system. This essential role can be illustrated by describing how the Christian religion uniquely anticipated the particular philosophical contributions of Hegel in post-Kantian idealism and the history of philosophy in general.  In the mature writings (1807-1831) of Hegel, Christianity is explicitly dealt with in three places: the final part of C.C. Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the third part ( of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, and the third part of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: of these, the lectures on the philosophy of religion constitute a more detailed exposition of the Encyclopedia; the Phenomenology of Spirit presents Christianity in from the standpoint of the self-development of human consciousness in history as the culmination of a dialectical sequence of absolute picture-thinking, or religion; and the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences presents religion as the concept which mediates between the concepts of art and the philosophy, and Christianity as the absolute religion which subsumes natural and finite religions within itself. The place of the concept of the Christian religion in the Phenomenology and Encyclopedia systems of Hegelian philosophy signifies its relations to other concepts, both as they are subordinated, superordinated, and sublated. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, the Hegelian christology of the hypostatic union lies at the very pinnacle of the system as the completion of the dialectic of religion; which guarantees, through revelation from the Absolute to itself in mankind, the completion of the preceding dialectical movements, and the ultimate possibility of knowledge of the Absolute. In the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, the Christian religion is the ‘absolute religion’ through which aesthetic imagination becomes philosophy of the truth. The differing places of Christianity in the Phenomenology and Encyclopedia systems can be explained according to the differing systematic roles of the two works: while the Phenomenology of Spirit presents the successive dialectical movements of naive consciousness in relation to the Absolute, the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences outlines the relation of the Absolute to itself in the successive dialectical movements of its own self-development. Thus, Christianity makes knowledge of the Absolute (C.DD. Absolute Knowledge) possible for-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, while Christianity mediates between art and philosophy, intuitions and concepts, in the absolute self-becoming of concepts in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences.

Hegel distinguishes Christianity from all dialectically prior revealed religions (e.g. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam etc.) according to the uniqueness of the incarnation and the ‘death of God’ on the cross. The incarnation of Christ is not merely an act of divine intervention but a world-historical event that, when believed to be true, radically transforms our collective self-understanding; for we then acknowledge our self-same absolute freedom, sacrality, and divinity through the image of the God-man. The deeper meaning of Ecce Homo, “behold the man”, is precisely this; that man sees his own absoluteness in the person of Christ, in which the Absolute Idea of God is uniquely and substantially united with the essence of mankind. Through this revelation, the nature of man comes to be acknowledged as potentially absolute, and hence potentially sharing in the freedom, sacrality and divinity of God. For this reason, the gospels of Christ, through which the Absolute is imagistically revealed, is also an anthropology of man. Hegel held this Christian theological-anthropology to have world-historical importance for the development of reason itself, which is the spirit of the world – der Weltgeist. Faith in the hypostatic union of the dual natures of God and man in the person of Christ is the crucial presupposition that enables the reason to develop with complete confidence in knowing the objective world of the non-Ego and the Absolute. So long as subjective consciousness was opposed to an alien objective non-Ego, there could be no condition for the identity and synthesis of knowledge of things for-us and the things-in-themselves, and scientific knowledge of the cosmos could, with the ancient Skeptics, be assumed to be ultimately unknowable.

This problem is represented by Plato in the sixth and greatest difficulty (133a–134e)  of the dialogue the Parmenides: Parmenides argues against Socrates that, according to the Platonic epistemology, forms may only be related to other forms just as sensible things may only be related to other sensible things; humans cannot know forms just as the gods cannot know human affairs; so that there can never be knowledge of forms or relations of the gods to men. The problem of the greatest difficulty is the problem of mediating the dualist cosmology – the divided line – of Plato’s Middle-Period dialogues (e.g. Phaedo, Republic, Symposium) and resolving opposite ontic categories of form and matter into a consistent unity. This problem of dualism is represented in religious consciousness in the Messianism of the Jews after the Babylonian Exile (582-538 BC). Bereft of the anointed monarchy of the House of David and the Ark of the First Temple, the Jews groaned in agony and expectation for their salvation from invasion, contamination and occupation by foreign peoples (e.g. the Greeks and Romans). The unnamable God – the tetragrammaton ‘YHWH’ – beyond the world was expected to directly intervene as a champion Messiah to shepherd Lord’s people Israel to true freedom and everlasting majesty. The 71st Psalm petitions:

“Give to the king thy judgment, O God, and to the king’s son they justice… He shall judge the poor of the people, and he shall save the children of the poor, and he shall humble the oppressor, and he shall continue with the Sun and before the Moon, throughout all generations… In his day shall justice spring up, and abundance of peace, till the Moon be taken away. And he shall rule from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the Earth… And all kings of the Earth shall adore him; all nations shall serve him.”

Thus, both Jews and Gentiles – Jerusalem and Athens – awaited the absolute mediation of God with man at the conclusion of the political development of the antique world, in which the universal Roman Empire united all nations, and:

 “All the conditions for its production [were] present… These forms [of personality, legal right, of Stoicism and Skepticism] compose, the periphery of the forms, which attend round the birthplace of Spirit as it becomes self-consciousness. Their center is the yearning agony of the unhappy despairing self-consciousness, a pain which permeates all of them and is the common birth-pain of its production — the simplicity of the pure notion, which contains those forms as its moments… The incarnation of the Divine Being, its having essentially and directly the shape of self-consciousness, is the simple content of Absolute Religion. Here the Divine Being is known as Spirit; this religion is the Divine Being’s consciousness concerning itself that it is Spirit… Spirit is known as self-consciousness, and to this self-consciousness it is directly revealed, for it is this self-consciousness itself. The divine nature is the same as the human, and it is this unity which is intuitively apprehended.” – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the Phenomenology of Spirit, C.CC. Religion C. Revealed Religion, par. 754-759

The Incarnation of Christ reveals the identity of consciousness and the Absolute through the hypostatic union of divine and human nature in the person of Jesus Christ: “I and my Father are one.” (Jn. 10:30) This revealed identity speculatively reconciles and mediates, for religious consciousness, between the dualities of reason; e.g. Ego and non-Ego, subject and object, sensible and supersensible, Man and God. Through the incarnation, Christianity affirms an indissoluble identity between the reason of man and the reason of God so that we may potentially come to know all things just as God knows himself. Jesus told his disciples: “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also: and from henceforth you know him, and have seen him.” (Jn. 14:7); “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither anything hid, that shall not be known and come to light.” (Lk. 8:17); and “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Jn. 8:32). Hegel writes, in the Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, “In the Christian Religion God has revealed God – that is, God has given us to understand what God is; so that God is no longer a concealed or secret existence.  And this possibility of knowing God, thus afforded us, renders such knowledge a duty…”  The speculative centrality of Christianity in the essential development of reason and the history of world-spirit is this speculative identity of God and Man in Christ; of all thought and being in the “Absolute Middle” that unites absolutely opposed categories of the subjective Ego and the objective non-Ego; and makes a philosophical science of absolute knowledge possible.

It is sometimes objected that Christianity cannot be the ‘absolute religion’ for this reason because the incarnation of God is not an element that is unique to Christianity: incarnations are also present, for example, in the ten Dashavatara, or avatars of Vishnu, such as Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. While other religious traditions affirm that God has been incarnated, only Christianity describes the passion, death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ. Hegel describes the ‘death of God’ in both Faith and Knowledge and the Phenomenology of Spirit from the standpoint of religious consciousness. Religious consciousness views God the Father and Christ the Son as indivisibly united in Jesus of Nazareth. The death of Jesus is thus viewed as the ‘death of God’ for both are united in the self-same appearance known through the logical sequence of these appearances. Hegel writes at the conclusion of section C.CC.III. Revealed Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit:

 “This [religious] self-consciousness does not therefore really die, as the particular person [of Jesus] is pictorially imagined to have really died; its particularity expires in its universality, i.e. in its knowledge, which is essential Being reconciling itself with itself. That immediately preceding element of figurative thinking is thus here affirmed as transcended, has, in other words, returned into the self, into its notion. What was in the former merely an (objective) existent has come to assume the form of Subject… When the death of the mediator is grasped by the self, this means the sublation of his factuality, of his particular independent existence: this particular self-existence has become universal self-consciousness…. The death of this pictorial idea implies at the same time the death of the abstraction of Divine Being, which is not yet affirmed as a self. ‘That death is the bitterness of feeling of the “unhappy consciousness”, when it feels that God Himself is dead. This harsh utterance is the expression of inmost self knowledge which has simply self for its content; it is the return of consciousness into the depth of darkness where Ego is nothing but bare identity with Ego, a darkness distinguishing and knowing nothing more outside it. This feeling thus means, in point of fact, the loss of the Substance and of its objective existence over against consciousness… This knowledge is thus spiritualization, whereby Substance becomes Subject, by which its abstraction and lifelessness have expired, and Substance therefore has become real, simple, and universal self-consciousness.” (PhG §785)

With the death of the God-man for religious consciousness, the concept of the universal essence of the “objective existence over against consciousness” (PhG §162) is lost and shattered even as “bare identity” of the Fichtean self-positing Ego continues in lonesome cognition. Hegel suggests that the ‘death of God’ phenomenologically reveals, for religious consciousness, the immediate self-certainty, self-subsistence and infinite freedom of the Ego in a way that had formerly been obscured by “the objective existence”, “abstraction and lifelessness” of the non-Ego “over against consciousness.” The positive result of the ‘death of God’ is the absolute dynamism and spiritualization of all thought. Thus the concept of the absolute Spinozist substance is baptized as the divine subject. Hegel first describes this in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit:

“The living substance is that being which is truly subject, or, what is the same thing, is truly realized and actual (wirklich) solely in the process of positing itself, or in mediating with its own self its transitions from one state or position to the opposite. As subject it is pure and simple negativity… True reality is merely this process of reinstating self-identity, of reflecting into its own self in and from its other, and is not an original and primal unity as such, not an immediate unity as such. It is the process of its own becoming, the circle which presupposes its end as its purpose, and has its end for its beginning; it becomes concrete and actual only by being carried out, and by the end it involves.” (PhG §18)

For religious consciousness, revealed Christian theology is revealed anthropology. The new conception of the God-man Jesus Christ constitutes a new Christian conception of man: human nature is affirmed to participate in divine reason and divine grace. The final end and highest good of human life is, no longer as with Aristotle magnanimity within a merely human political community (Zoon Politikon), but rather participation in the divine life of the Absolute being through the superabundant grace and beatitude of the Kingdom of Heaven. This echoes St. Paul of Tarsus’s description, in the Epistle to the Romans, of our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: just as Hegel affirms that Ego becomes certain of itself through the ‘death of God’, so St. Paul affirms that we die, are buried, and are resurrected with Jesus Christ, to establish a hitherto unknown relationship between man and God:

 “we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 6:4-11)

The ‘death of God’ in Hegel, like the death of Christ in St. Paul, signifies the self-negation of the Absolute.  For the Christian religious consciousness, the self-negating loss of “objective existence” is just as much the death of our objective bodily existence as “we are crucified with [Christ]” so that we might “liveth unto God.” Christianity is thus distinguished from other incarnational religions by, not merely the absolute reconciliation of opposite categories through the incarnation, but also by the absolute self-negation of objective being through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hegel’s ‘speculative Good Friday’ is the self-negation of all concepts in the Absolute idea:

 “Infinity is the pure nullification of the antithesis or of finitude; but it is at the same time also the spring of eternal movement, the spring of that finitude which is infinite, because it eternally nullifies itself. Out of this nothing and pure night of infinity, as out of the secret abyss that is its birthplace, the truth lifts itself upward… the pure concept or infinity as the abyss of nothingness in which all being is engulfed, must signify the infinite grief [of the finite] purely as a moment of the supreme Idea, and no more than a moment… Thereby it must re-establish for philosophy the Idea of absolute freedom and along with it the absolute Passion, the speculative Good Friday in place of the historic Good Friday. Good Friday must be speculatively re-established in the whole truth and harshness of its God-forsakenness… the highest totality can and must achieve its resurrection solely from this harsh consciousness of loss, encompassing everything, and ascending in all its earnestness and out of its deepest ground to the most serene freedom of its shape.” (Faith and Knowledge, 1802)

The “absolute freedom” of the “pure concept” results from the absolute self-negation signified of the ‘death of God’ in religious consciousness. The drama of the Christian religion and the history of reason are united in the “absolute passion” of the ‘speculative Good Friday’, through which the totality of concepts are altogether negated in “infinite grief” and posited anew – resurrected from Hell and “ascending in all earnestness and out of its deepest ground” – of the Absolute Idea.

Hegel’s trinitarian theology  confers the crown of absoluteness upon the Christian religion. Hegel describes at the conclusion of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (§575 – 577), how the dialectical moments may be read in three different sequences, with three different subjects, and from three different beginnings: (i) Logic – Nature – Spirit; (ii) Nature – Spirit – Logic; and (iii) Spirit – Logic – Nature.  The divine persons of the Holy Trinity within the triune God are mutually and recursively related, just as the conceptual moments of God are mutually and recursively related:  Logic corresponds to God the Father, Nature to God the Son, and Spirit to the Holy Spirit. The major divisions and subdivisions of Hegel’s work must correspond to the persons of the Holy Trinity because Hegel’s dialectical logic is essentially trinitarian, and Hegel’s conception of the Holy Trinity is essentially logical: the simplest seminal first moment (i.e. thesis) is the Father, the second self-alienated opposed moment (i.e. antithesis) is the Son, and the third reconciling dynamic moment (i.e. synthesis) is the Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is an absolute self-contradiction: ‘God is one’ and ‘God is three’. Hegel absolutizes contradiction in his Logic by affirming that the Holy Trinity is the absolute contradiction of three divine persons in one God and the eternal universal and living essence of all logic, consistency and contrareity: the contrariness of the Trinity is also Hegel’s dialectical principle of identity in difference, through which he holds contrary opposite concepts to be resolved into the self-identical unity of a master concept [i.e. (A = A)&(A A)].  Subsumption (Aufhebung) is this process of resolution, which is simultaneous  supercession, negation and preservation of differing and opposed concepts within a fuller and richer conceptual unity. The triadic relations of the concepts that pervade and dynamize the philosophy of Hegel instantiate these trinitarian logical relations. The conceptual moments of God may relate to one another, as that which is sublated and that which sublates, in as many ways as there are relations between the divine persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus, Hegel’s Christian trinitarian conception of logic and contrareity informed his philosophical contributions to post-Kantian idealism. Hegel’s elliptical axiom “Alles was vernünftig ist ist wirklich, und alles was wirklich ist ist vernünftig” (“All that is rational is real, and all that is real is rational”), can just as well be logicized as the axiom ‘All logic is theological, and all theology is logical.’ The revelation, intelligibility, and divination of universal reason in Christ the Logos was long ago acknowledged by Christian Neo-Platonists such as Clement and Origin of Alexandrian. The Thirteenth Century Dominican mystic Meister Ekhart describes this in the sermon on the Self Communication of God:

“The Father is a revelation of the Godhead, the Son is an image and countenance of the Father, and the Holy Ghost is an effulgence of that countenance, and a mutual love between Them, and these properties They have always possessed in Themselves.”

Dynamic movement is the result of the negative activity of potentiality in actuality, or of some recurring absence within the fullness of substance. Thus negation begets dynamic movement within a self-moving substance. For Hegel and Schelling, the substances of concepts are dynamic when self-negated by contrary opposite concepts: “The Concept is what is alive, is what mediates itself with itself.  One of its determinations is also Being… This is the Concept as such, the Concept of God, the Absolute Concept; this is just what God is. As Spirit or as Love, God is this Self-particularizing.” (G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion p. 436) Christianity is the most dynamic concept of religion because, for religious consciousness, the ‘death of God’ is the total negation the concept of the objectified Absolute. St. Paul writes: “Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men… humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8) The absolute self-negation of Christianity in the ‘death of God’ is also the most extreme self-alienation and opposition of concepts in the sacred history of God’s children Israel. The dark night of the soul of Good Friday, in which Christ calls out “‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'” (Mt. 27:46), historically recalls the grief of the 22nd Psalm over the ostensible abandonment of God’s covenant with Israel during the sack of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Captivity; but also speculatively anticipates the apocalyptic opposition of all concepts, in the moment of our most heart-rending despair, when the essential coherency and self-identity of absolutely everything seems lost: when “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (William Butler Yeats, the Second Coming).

The dynamism of Christianity propels Christian religious consciousness into an expectation of future reconciliation – the Second Coming of Christ – in which the covenantal promise of sacred history is expected to be fully realized. The absolute antithesis of the crucifixion demands an absolute resolution and finale. Any opposed pair of contrary concepts logically demands some third concept to mediate and reconcile each into a coherent self-identity. As (C.CC.) Religion completes (C.) Reason for-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, so does the teleological end of religion superordain and determine the end of the (C.BB.) Spirit of history. The hopes of the City of Man are informed by the City of God, and the absolute expectations of Christian sacred history inform the expectations of secular philosophies of history, or theories of historicism. The future horizon of sacred history is the theological origin, in revealed religion, of all subsequent progressivist historicism. The ancient pagan Greeks and Roman acknowledged no absolute progress in history. The epics of Homer and the theogony of Hesiod depict a lengthy historical regress from the resplendent reign of the immortal gods to the pygmy age of mortal men. Likewise did the Jews count themselves to be lesser men than their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Christian’s affirmed history to be progressive because Christians trust in the promised atonement of their savior, Jesus Christ, by whose death and resurrection God is believed to have conquered sin and death, and restored the pilgrim Church in the progress of faith towards the highest good of eternal beatitude: this hope for the restoration of the world in the eternal goodness of God is signified in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come/ thy will be done/ on Earth as it is in Heaven.” In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History Hegel described the logical and theological origin of this eschatological orientation that is common to all progressivist historicism:

“The truth, then, that a Providence of God presides over the events of the World – consorts with the proposition in question; for Divine Providence is Wisdom, endowed with an infinite Power which realizes its aim in the absolute rational-design of the World… the world is not abandoned to chance and external contingent causes, but that a Providence controls it… The insight to which Philosophy is to lead us is that the real world is at it ought to be; that the truly Good – the Universal Divine Reason – is not a mere abstraction, but a vital principle capable of realizing itself. This Good, this Reason, in its most concrete form, is God… The World Spirit corresponds to the Divine Spirit, which is the Absolute Spirit.”

History is providential simply because God is universal reason, all that is real is rational (“alles was wirklich ist ist vernünftig”), and reality is obedient to God. Hegel’s progressivist historicism is the direct consequence of his trinitarian dialectical logic, in which thesis begets its opposite and opposites are reconciled into a richer unity, and the Absolute is placed at the end as the product rather than the axiom of philosophy. The Lectures on the Philosophy of History should be read as an illustration of historicism determined by the eternal forms of reason described in the Science of Logic. As Karl Rahner would later elaborate, this picture of the self-development of Spirit in history is essentially the dynamic efflorescence of God’s grace, a “universal pnuematology”, and a “salvation history” (Geist in Welt,1939, and Hörer des Wortes, 1944). In the drama of sacred history, the proto-evangelium of the Old Testament is the first act, the Gospels of the New Testament are the second act, and the Acts of the Apostles begin the third and final act, which is prophesied to be completed by the Apocalypse of St. John. The order of the Mass re-presents this trinitarian drama of sacred history as well in the three parts; the Service of Prayer, Service of Instruction, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice; in which the priest assumes the sacramental role as the person of Christ to reenact the sacrifice of the Last Supper, the Passion and the Resurrection. The celebration of the Mass can thus be understood as a ritual re-presentation of the Hegelian themes of progressivist historicism, reason in history, and our eternal and eschatological salvation through our liturgical and sacramental participation in the self-giving Logos of Jesus Christ.

Interpretations of Hegel vary widely, not merely because of the gothic-intricacy of Hegel’s prose, but more especially because readers of Hegel’s texts ineluctably interpret his speculative glosses as re-affirming their own preconceptions. One of literary master-strokes of Hegel was, like Plato, to favorably present opposed theses while neighter affirming nor denying any definite conclusions. By this artifice, Hegel retained for himself a veil of vagaries that elicited from his students a perpetual self-reciprocating dialectic of opposed questions and answers. Consequently, an interpretation of Hegel which purports to show that God is can with no less plausibility be opposed by an interpretation that God is not; just as the interpretation that the philosophy of Hegel is Christian can be opposed by the interpretation that Hegel is not a Christian, but perhaps a crypto-Feuerbachian. The opposed interpretations of the philosophy of Hegel; which were first publicly manifested in the conflict between the so-called old ‘Right Hegelians’ and the young ‘Left Hegelians’; has continued to this day in Christian transcendentist and Marxian immanentist interpretations. It is plausible that my own Christian and ‘Right Hegelian’ interpretation of Hegel has been pervasively conditioned by the preconceived categories of Christian religious consciousness, just as the interpretations of those who may disagree have been conditioned by some rejection of religious consciousness. The formal relation of the concepts in Hegel’s system may frame, but not resolve, the dispute over the importance of the content of religion. The key misunderstanding is then to simply entirely reject the importance of religion in philosophy. As philosophy, like religion, purports to describe the truth, a true reading of true philosophy may only be judged according to the self-legislated norms of reason itself. In this way, confessional conflicts of religious faith are reintroduced into philosophical hermeneutics. The genuine question of whether the philosophy of Hegel is essentially Christian must therefore remain disputed so long there remain doubts about Christianity.


C.D.V.: What do you make of philosophers like Zizek trying to deal with Christianity of Hegel without just dismissing it as incidental while also trying to reconcile it with the materialism of Marx?

 R.H.: The most Hegelian approach to the procession of ideas in history is the synthesis of all differentia and opposites within the Absolute Idea. There is, for this reason, nothing contrary to the spirit of Hegel in working to speculatively reconcile ostensibly opposed concepts such as Christianity with Marxism, or religion with historical materialism: this speculative enterprise can, perhaps, be understood more generally as the synthesis of transcendent supersensible forms revealed in religious consciousness with the natural operations of the material world observe through sensation; as a return to the Platonic project of reconciling the purely actual Being of Parmenides with the ever-changing conflux of Heraclitus; or as the return to the Kantian project of reconciling the immutable windowless monads of Leibniz with the extended and self-developing substance of Spinoza. In every case, speculative philosophy endeavors to unify the dualistic opposition of pure thought and intuition in an absolute concept that envelops and subsumes the true concepts of all reality. The project of reconciling Christian transcendence with socialist justice has in the past been undertaken from the standpoint of Christian theology; for example in the Franciscan Fraticelli, the Christian Socialism of Dorothy Day, and the Liberation Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez; and from the standpoint of Marxist theory; as in the writings of Ernst Bloch who wrote in The Principle of Hope “Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem” and “the Bolshevist fulfillment of Communism is part of the age-old fight for God.”

For either Christian theology or Marxist theory to be fully explanatory of the world, it would seem that each must offer some account of the pervasive appeal of the other: Christian theology must account for the Socialist contests against the social iniquities of modern capitalist economies, just as Marxist theory must account for the spiritual conditions of Christian religious consciousness: Marxists must explain the persisting desire for self-transcending faith and devotion, for which “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”, just as Christians must explain how they are to bring justice to the present material conditions of society, for which they are commanded to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Hegel is the key to open each concept for the other. Hegel is not only a seminal thinker for Marxist theory, but also a great modern Christian theologian. In Hegelian terms, both Christian theology and Marxist theory must endeavor to speculatively sublate, negate, and preserve the other, so as to unlock, open, and take possession of all of the riches of Pharaoh from the land of Egypt.

Although I have some suspicions about Prof. Žižek’s interpretations of Hegel, it would be irresponsible for me to comment on an author’s whose publications I am largely ignorant of. Some interpreters of Hegel are tempted by their preconceptions to deny Hegel’s exuberant Christian confessions as little more than pious nods to the Restoration-era faith of the Kingdom of Prussia. For example, Prof. Robert Solomon interprets Hegel as “essentially an atheist” (In the Spirit of Hegel, 1983, p.582). Such esoteric interpretations, which maintain that Hegel was a writer who deliberately deceived his readers regarding his Christian faith, are (while not indubitably false) demanding of a much more conniving interpretation of Hegel than his fiercely independent and outspoken tone would seem to suggest. In his book review, Prof. Michael Rosen called Prof. Solomon’s interpretation “extremely disappointing” and “bizarre” (The Philosophical Review, pp.115-117, 1986). Thus, leaving aside these interpretations, there appear to be three major ways in which Marxist theoreticians may seek to “deal with the Christianity of Hegel” by de-Christianizing the philosophy of Hegel to be more amenable to an ostensibly irreligious Marxist theory: by re-conceiving of (i) the formal relations of the system, (ii) the metaphysics, and (iii) the sociology of Hegel.

(i) Christian interpreters of Hegel have earnestly and decisively emphasized the systematic place and function of the concept of Christian revealed religion in the system of Hegel (e.g. James Sterling, Emil Fakenheim, William Wallace etc.). Christianity is not only acclaimed as the ‘absolute religion’ which subsumes all prior religions in religious consciousness, but furthermore as the concept that superordinately determines the essence of the subordinate concepts: in the Phenomenology of Spirit, for instance, the concept of (C.CC.III) Christian revealed religion is the apex of the concept of (C.CC) Religion which subordinates and subsumes, in (C) Reason, the concepts of (C.AA) Free Concrete Mind and (C.BB) Spirit; which in turn subsumes (A) Consciousness and (B) Self-Consciousness. Thus, the crowning concept of Christian subsumes all other concepts within itself. Although Christianity is enthroned at the zenith of the system of the Phenomenology of Spirit, it is not itself (C.DD) Absolute Knowing but merely the handmaid of the philosophical-theology of Absolute Idealism. The Phenomenology of Spirit is merely a prolegomena, for historically alienated consciousness, of the system of philosophy which Hegel begins in the Science of Logic and outlines in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences.

As the Phenomenology of Spirit stands in the relation of the Absolute to consciousness as a mediating prelude to Hegel’s mature philosophical science, it may be mystically envisaged to assume the filial role of Christ the Son in relation to the seminal role of God the Father in the Science of Logic, and the dynamic efflorescence of the Holy Spirit in the Berlin Lectures on the History of Philosophy and the Philosophy of History. Consequently, the sovereign concept of (C.CC.III) Christian Revealed Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit must be understood, like Jesus Christ, to be the mediating concept between human consciousness and the Absolute Idea of God, just as (3.3.2) Religion appears again in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences as the mediating concept between (3.3.1) Art and (3.3.3) Philosophy (e.g. S-M-P or Father-Son-Holy Spirit). Religion mediates between art and philosophy in the Absolute Idea because Hegel, with Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant, held all formal concepts to require the content of intuition: the universal philosophical concept is constructed from the content of aesthetic intuition related to the absolute truth of religion and yet formally purified of the content any particular intuition. The majestic tradition of Christian art, from the earliest hymns to the cantatas of Mozart, is for Hegel the spiritual flowering of the concerted imaginations of the children of God to manifest the Absolute Idea through the variegated forms aesthetic intuition. In the oldest systematic fragment on German Idealism describes the centrality of art to philosophy:

“the idea which unites all, the idea of beauty, the word taken in the higher platonic sense. I am convinced that the highest act of reason, which, in that it comprises all ideas, is an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are united like sisters only in beauty – the philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet. The people without aesthetic sense are our philosophers of the letter. The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy. One cannot be clever in anything, one cannot even reason cleverly in history – without aesthetic sense.”

Interpreters who wish to de-Christianize Hegelian philosophy may allege that the subordinate and mediating role of religion in the system of Hegel means that the Christian religion is suppressed by the superior concept of (C.DD) Absolute Knowing and (3.3.3) Philosophy: just as the universal concept purifies philosophy of the particular content of intuition, so does it seem to exorcise philosophical reason of religion. However, this interpretation confuses the Hegelian principle of subsumption (Aufhebung), which preserves the subordinate concepts, with bad skepticism, which suppresses and rejects the subordinate concepts. Hegel describes the difference between subsumption and skepticism in the Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit:

  “For this view is skepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result… The skepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is — in order to cast it into the same abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself.” (PhG §79)

Lest we fall into the most abysmal skepticism which cannot advance a step further, thinking must incorporate the determinate negations of all concepts to “progress through the complete succession of forms”: rather than being cast into the void, the Christian religion is denied merely as absolute knowledge just as it is preserved as a concept that is essential to this knowledge, viz. the negation of negation or the determinate negation (determinatio est negatio): the concept of Christianity is negated as containing the fullness of purely conceptual truth even while it is affirmed, viz. this negation, to be altogether necessary for the emergence of philosophical truth. In the (3.3) Absolute Idea of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, (3.3.2) Religion objectifies the varied aesthetic imaginings into a sacred drama of the self-revelation of the Absolute to consciousness.

The Christian religion is essential as the most synthetic and dynamic form of religion which, through divine revelation, uniquely allows consciousness to imagine and know philosophical science. If religious consciousness were, on the contrary, consigned to the abysmal void of unthought, then there could be no warranted claim to scientific knowledge. This problem of the doxastic foundations of science in religious belief continues to resurface in anti-realist and anti-foundationalist critiques of natural science and scientific naturalism, such as Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (1975), Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (1993), and Thomas Nagel’s recent book Mind and Cosmos (2012). The necessity of the mediating concept of Religion in the philosophy of Hegel thus inverts the common understanding of the relation of faith and reason: faith is not the ghostly shadow of reason the necessary precondition of reason itself. So Hegel may affirm, with St. Anselm, that we must have faith seeking understanding (Credo ut Intellegam), and with the proverbs that  the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” (Pr. 9:10)

(ii) Hegel’s fundamental metaphysical commitments can perhaps be radically reconceived as materialist and anthropocentric rather than absolute idealist and theocentric. This approach was first pursued by the disenfranchised students of Hegelian philosophy who wished to weaponize the Hegelian dialectic against the alliance of altar and throne in the Kingdom of Prussia and the Holy Alliance (c.1815-1848).These radical critics of the established order of the world were called by David Strauss the ‘Young Hegelians’, in contrast to the doctrinaire former students of Hegel, or the ‘Old Hegelians’. They counted among themselves such future luminaries as Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, Max Stirner, Bruno Bauer, Friederich Engels and Karl Marx. Feuerbach interpreted Hegel’s Absolute Idea to be no more Platonic and real than an idea in the human mind. The idea of God and the Absolute should, on this account, become the absolute knowledge and power of mankind. Marx and Engels followed Feuerbach in juxtaposing critical, realist, and empirical dialectical materialism to Hegel’s purportedly spiritualist, speculative and phantasmagoric absolute idealism. In each case, the Young Hegelians sought to unravel the unity of the systemic tapestry of the philosophy of Hegel, and then to re-conceive its formal relations and basic constituents in a way more suitable to the achievement of their social and political ambitions. Yet, as their aims differed as wildly as their re-conceptions, the Young Hegelians could produce no consistent school or system of philosophy. Each and all stand in relation to the speculative empire of Hegel as, what Marx once memorably described as, the successor generals (diadochi) of the spirit tearing and rending the corpse of their world-conquering great-king Alexander.

Feuerbach denied the subjectivity of the Absolute to be anything other than the subjectivity of man, and consequently re-centered the Absolute Idea into the mind of man rather than the mind of God. Feuerbach’s anthropocentrism rejected the Schellingian identity between the knowledge of the finite human Ego and the absolute divine Ego, the Berkeleyan subsistence of the universe in the perception of God, and the whole Platonic inheritance of preternatural transcendent forms. The consequence was not only the rejection of the priority of the pure forms of logic to the extended matter of nature but the implicit denial of the very possibility of a science of true philosophy: absolute knowledge requires an absolute knower as the subject which knows the object of truth, just as the truth of the particulars is the universal in which they are altogether united. The rejection of God, Platonic universals, and Logic from the metaphysics of Hegel, viz. the anthropocentric reduction, consequently makes true, universal and scientific knowledge impossible. The Absolute is the truth. To deny that there is truth is just as much to deny that this denial of truth is itself true, which is to affirm, viz. the Law of Excluded Middle, that this denial is false. Thus any denial of the truth self-contradictory. This is the problem of any anthropocentric reduction of absolute truth that relativizes truth to the human mind. Therefore, according to classical logic, Feuerbach cannot affirm an anthropocentrism or naturalism that excludes the Absolute, universals, and logic, without also contradicting himself.

Marx and Engels re-conceived of Hegel’s Absolute as the immanent dynamic self-development of nature which they called dialectical materialism, in opposition to the transcendent spiritualist idealism which they attributed to Hegel. This materalists-idealist juxtaposition reiterates Aristotle’s abstract opposition of form and matter in concrete substance, Spinoza’s two attributes of thought and extension in divine nature (Deus sive Natura), Kant’s division of concepts and intuition in the apperceptive unity of thought, and Schelling’s realism and idealism in the self-identity of the Absolute; for in each case the materialist-idealist juxtaposition seeks to subordinate form to matter, the thought to extension, the concept to the intuition, and the ideal to the real, so as to affirm, against the purportedly mystical spiritualism of Hegel, that dialectical materialism stands upright on the firm metaphysical ground matter. The motivation is to ground an ontologically and epistemological foundation in sensible material reality. Kantian criticism quickly exposes the untenability of this one-sided opposition of foundational matter to epiphenomenal form. What is the essence of matter? How is the essence of matter deduced without dogmatic presuppositions? Where is matter to be sensibly intuited? How is matter without form dialectical? Can the ground of materialism be turtles all the way down? These embarrassing questions soon reveal that dialectical materialism simply subordinates one side of each conceptual dichotomy to the other, to suppress and banish the turtle from the shell, and affirm nature as the armored panoply of certain knowledge. Not only does the promised foundation of material nature prove to be no foundation at all, but materialism poisons philosophy with its essential finitude, closure, and finality. The essence of matter is simply the self-limited and self-subsisting atomic particles of Democritus. No whole can arise from the agglomeration of many merely self-related parts. Neither can any set of formal relations join together totally self-enclosed particles. The consequence of materialism is, then, either a tower of material bricks which reaches to the heavens but crumbles like the Tower of Babel under the weight of its own antinomies, or a spiritualized matter that is indistinguishable from Fichte’s intellective being within Schelling’s identity-philosophy. Fichte’s ideal being for-consciousness that is identical to the reality of the Absolute in-itself is simply the phenomenological movement of what Hegel calls Spirit: where materialism affirms a pre-critical mechanistic relation of static material particles, the Hegelian spirit of properly critical dialectical materialism affirms a dynamic self-particularizing totality of all thought and being in Logic, Nature and Spirit. With the rejection of the mechanistic materialism, viz. the disjunctive inference, Hegelian Spirit is must be affirmed as the very substance becoming subject of the Absolute.

(iii) The (i) systematic and the (ii) metaphysical re-conceptions of the philosophy of Hegel are together united in the (iii) interpretation of Hegelianism as sociology. In this way, the negative re-conceptions of Hegel constitute a sort of negative dialectical triad, in which the dialectical reconciliation of opposites produces a more false and discordant rather than a more true and harmonious concept, in a way reminiscent of the negative dialectic of modern philosophy of subjectivity in Glauben und Wissen (Faith and Knowledge, 1802). The sociological re-conception affirms that the philosophy of Hegel can only be interpreted as the historical development of the self-understanding of society, and denies that any ‘metaphysical’, idealist, or platonizing interpretation is possible. Prof. Terry Pinkard summarizes this interpretative approach in the Successor to Metaphysics: Absolute Idea and Absolute Spirit (Monist, July 1991, Vol. 74, Issue 3). Prof. Pinkard conflates Kant’s term ‘metaphysics’ with the term ‘dogmatism’ and simplistically presumes that all metaphysical reasoning is dogmatic and rejected by post-Kantian idealists. Thus, Pinkard’s non-metaphysical interpretation simply purports  to be critical philosophy without dogmatic assumptions about the reality or structure of being. The conflation of metaphysics with dogmatism leads Pinkard to reject all of the reality of all supra-physical and supersensible entities of theology and logic as the relics of a pre-critical metaphysics of substance. This is the occamist razor which shaves Logic from Pinkard’s sociology of Spirit.

With Feuerbach, Pinkard interprets the philosophy of Hegel from the anthropocentric perspective of a historical human community, and rejects the pure Platonic forms of preternatural and pre-human logic which are posited by God’s seminal reason (rationes seminales, or logoi spermatikoi) rather than man. With Marx and Engels, Pinkard must assume a naturalistic cosmology reminiscent of dialectical materialism. This becomes even clearer when the presuppositions of sociology are investigated: sociology is the logic of human society, which is inter-subjectively constituted by social human actors, who are each themselves either the formal apperceptive unity of transcendental self-consciousness or the empirical composite of material nature; sociology thus methodologically assumes Kantian empiricism; rejects the self-subsistence of the transcendental self-conscious and affirms only empirical and material composition; therefore, sociology reduces to materialism which reduces to absurdity. In this way, the (iii) sociological interpretation inherits the errors of the (i) systematic and the (ii) metaphysical re-conceptions of the philosophy of Hegel: the sociological interpretation dogmatically assumes that (i) society may subsist by itself or through the activity of social actors without any further mediation of society, and (ii) assumes the self-subsistence of society and persons to be supported by the real ground of material nature. However, the (i) unmediated self-subsistent society is merely assumed as a concept of (3) Spirit that floats alone as a postulate of thought wholly indifferent to any mediating conceptual relation to the (1) Logic and (2) Nature, which are the very necessary conditions of its conceptual possibility. Philosophy is for Hegel an absolute and all-encompassing science which cannot tolerate dogmatic postulates of wholly unmediated concepts, any more than the human body can tolerate gangrene infection. The (ii) materialist self-subsistence of society thus equally succumbs to materialist poison of finitude, closure, and finality, which threatens to collapse upon itself as soon as it is erected. The whole edifice is either unsupported and simply postulated, or closed in upon itself like a windowless castle of so many finite material bricks.

In suppressing the pure forms of theology and logic, these interpretations (i, ii & iii) construct a locked and irreformable system. All of the concepts of nature and society are enclosed in finite vessels from which none can interact and none can escape. The castle that was intended to reach to the heavens becomes a god-forsaken dungeon in which, with the messianic yearning of the Jews in exile, mankind ceaselessly awaits an unforeseeable eschatological emancipation. No freedom of the spirit is possible for such an interpretation of the philosophy of Hegel according to the letter of the fixed proposition, in which propositions are understood simply by-themselves as the predicate of a subject and are (i) not mediated within and through the self-particularizing Absolute; (ii) exclude or suppress the pure forms of Logic; and assume an (i) unmediated and (ii) materially subsisting (iii) merely postulated society. Every de-Christianizing interpretation, that intends to unravel the system of Hegel, either returns safely to the harbor of the speculative Absolute Idea or crashes upon the rocks of its own dogmatic presuppositions. The stumbling-block for all of these impious interpretations is what Slavoj Žižek has called the monstrosity of Christ: it is putatively absurd to believe that God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; was crucified; died; and was resurrected. Thus Tertulian confessed “Credo quia absurdum” (“I believe because it is absurd”). Christianity seems to be the most absurd religion of all because it absolutely negates itself through the self-negation of the Absolute. However this absolute self-negation is, in the philosophy of Hegel, the very unsurpassed dynamism and spiritual vitality of Christianity. There could be no greater self-negation, and no greater dynamism, than the visible self-annihilation of the God-man in the ‘death of God’ for “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn. 15:13)


2 thoughts on “Interview with Ryan Haecker on Right Hegelianism and Christian Theology

  1. “In general, I agree with the general assessment that people underestimate the role that Christianity plays in Hegel’s thought… the ten ton elephant in the room is that, if Hegel is a Christian, he certainly is not a very good one if “orthodoxy” is to be taken seriously in any real Catholic or Protestant sense.”
    That is very good of you to say so. Please observe that the polemical purpose of my response to this interview was precisely against people who may be inclined, by whatever persuasion, to underestimate the role of Christianity in Hegel’s thought. For this reason, my response neglected the question of Hegel’s Christian orthodoxy. Nowhere in the response to this interview did I affirm that Hegel was a Christian in the traditional orthodox Catholic or Protestant sense. Although the contention that Hegel is a Christian philosopher may, perhaps, have suggested this, I intentionally left the question of the specificity of Hegel’s Christian doctrines vague and un-addressed. It might be said of Hegel that, while he debatably deviates from Catholic or Protestant doctrines in many ways, that he nonetheless adheres the Nicene confession of Christianity. In this minimal sense, I believe I am correct to describe Hegel as a Christian philosopher.
    “The entire intellectual project of the Catholic Church up until the Second Vatican Council was to re-found Catholic orthodoxy on a historically tenuous vision of moderate realism or Neothomism. Idealism, either of the Platonic, Hegelian, etc. variety was seen as violating the absolute wall between the natural and supernatural orders, as was seen in Pius XII’s condemnation of Henri de Lubac and Teilhard de Chardin, among others, in the papal encyclical Mediator Dei.”
    Yes, it is no doubt correct to affirm that the theology of the Catholic Church had, from Hegel’s time onward, been largely pre-occupied with responding to varieties of idealism in European philosophy and Christian theology. This effort was officially inaugurated with Leo XIII’s Papal Encyclical Eterni Patris (c.1879) which affirmed the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas as the foremost school of medieval and Catholic theology, and may, perhaps, be said to be bookended by Pope Pius XII’s papal encyclical Mediator Dei (c.1947) which condemned Nouvelle Théologie. However, the opposition between the moderate realist Neo-Thomism of the Church and the German idealism of the secular European academy is only one part of the story of 19th-Century theology. Nouvelle Théologie did not emerge in a cultural vacuum, but had been preceded by centuries of Catholic theologians who had worked to critically appropriate the good fruit of modern European philosophy. Without mentioning the lesser known work of early modern synthesizers, J.A. Möhler, Franz von Baader, J. Gorres, F. Schlegel, J.S. Drey, J.E. Kuhn, M. Deutinger, Antonio Rosmini, Joseph Maréchal, Karl Rahner, and Bernard Lonergan may be listed among the luminaries who endeavored, contrary to Neo-Scholasticism, to effect a theological reconciliation of medieval and modern philosophies. In his book Romantic Idealism and Roman Catholicism: Schelling and the Theologians, Fr. Thomas O’Meara O.P. has summarized the intellectual ferment of theological rapprochement precipitated by Schelling’s arrival in Catholic Wurzburg and Munich following his departure from Jena in 1804. John E. Toews writes in the Journal of Modern History (1983):
    “… the widespread commitment to this Schellingian program among German Roman Catholic thinkers in the first half of the nineteenth century produced a vital and “culturally engaged” body of theological writing which could function as a model and inspiration for con- temporary Catholics seeking an alternative to neo-scholasticism.”
    In addition to of the standard periodization of the history of modern Catholic theology, which turns towards Neo-Thomism with the Leonine Revival and away from Neo-Thomism with the Second Vatican Council, there is also a subsidiary and, albeit reactionary, intellectual tradition of Catholic theological engagement with modern European idealism in fruitful, if sometimes heterodox, conflict with Neo-Scholasticism. This subsidiary intellectual tradition of Roman Catholic theological modernism is the German tributary of Transcendental Thomism, Nouvelle Théologie, Catholic phenomenology and, arguably, the ascendency of much of the novel pastoral thought of the Second Vatican Council. While it may be correct to hold some of the doctrines of Hegel’s Absolute Idealism to be heretical, this question remains a subject of continued dispute among Hegel scholars. I suspect that modern Christian theology may nonetheless benefit from the heterodox philosophy of Hegel in a way similar to how patristic and medieval theologians benefited from the pre-Christian philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.
    “I think the main characteristics of the fundamental danger to orthodoxy that this blurring posed is precisely in the exposition of the Trinity given in this interview. The application of intra-Trinitarian begetting and procession to the workings of material creation was deemed to be nearly heretical in the “traditional” versions of Catholic theology in particular. The concern was always to maintain the divine prerogative of freedom concerning the creation that God freely made. Any reflection of the Trinitarian nature of God in the world (Augustine’s vestigia trinitatis) could be no more than loose analogies at best. The idea that the entire cosmos was an unfolding of the divine being in time and space could never shake the accusation of pantheism, and it still cannot to some extent.”
    Yes, I agree that there is a danger to the Christian conception of the Trinity implicit in the blurring of the transcendent form and the immanent material effects of the Trinity in the philosophy of Hegel. Hegel undoubtedly unites the transcendent (formal) and the immanent (material) Trinity altogether in the intra-Trinitarian procession of the Absolute Idea. The unity of all form and matter, in the Idea ostensibly appears to be guilty of a pantheistic reduction of supernatural God to the nature universe. However, this semblance of pantheistic reduction is merely the result of the abstract unity of opposed categories, in which the duality of form and matter are haphazardly conjoined in an ideal monism. That all is united in the unity of the Godhead may, at first, suggest that God is nothing more than nature in which supernatural grace is totally eliminated, in the manner of Spinoza – Deus sive Natura. This haphazard conjunction of opposites is abstract because no definite description of the manner in which the opposed concepts are joined has been forthcoming. Without a definite description of the mutual relations of the opposite categories, each concept remains unrelated to the other. For this reason, the synthesis of opposite categories is an unmediated monism.
    The difference in complexity between an abstract conjunction and a dynamic concrete concept may be illustrated by the difference between planets and asteroids. A volcanic planet such as the Earth or Venus is distinguished from an asteroid, not merely by its mass, shape, and density, but also by the internal relations of its parts to one another and the whole through the self-mediation and self-particularization of itself in and through volcanic geologic activity. In this way, the static agglomeration of terrestrial matter develops and maintains, in homeostatic equilibrium, the mediated relations of every one of its part to the whole of its dynamic substance. It is not sufficient to affirm, with Aristotle, that the element of earth is molded in the form of a sphere, to construct the concept of a planet, for such an abstract description excludes the necessary mediating relations of the planet to itself: the conjunction of the geometric form and the element of content reduces the concept of a living planet to a dead asteroid.
    ” However, I find the idea that, “absolute self-negation is, in the philosophy of Hegel, the very unsurpassed dynamism and spiritual vitality of Christianity” not only annihilates opponents of the Christian message, but Christianity itself. If this process is to be taken seriously, then the very definition of what Christianity is cannot be taken for granted, just as Hegel did not take for granted the Idea would unfold in history without being manifested in something concrete (the State). In this sense, where is the work of the negative in the here and now? What is Christianity in the here and now?… If Christian theology is merely the unfolding of “salvation history”, then the outcome of that history must be tangible in the present.”
    The dynamic spiritual vitality of Christianity, that is the consequence of the absolute self-negation of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, neither annihilate Christians nor their opponents, but rather unites them altogether in spiritual intercommunion. This is because the dynamic negativity of Christianity is not opposed as a weapon of annihilation against non-Christians or Christians themselves, as an abstract and infinitely quantitative extended negation of what the idea of Christianity is not. The apocalyptic message of the New Testament exhorts spiritual transformation; which is the negation of the form of one substance to become another; so as to ennoble rather than destroy the hearer of the word. So similarly should the concept of Christianity be understood to subsume, enrich, and preserve, rather than annihilate different, subsidiary and opposed concepts. The negation and sublation of concepts is also the individuation of the universal and the particular concepts so that “the Idea [may] unfold in history as “something concrete.” The concrete manifestation of the Spirit of Christianity is the Church, and its historical development is what Karl Rahner has described as ‘salvation history’. The Church becomes tangible in its liturgy and sacraments: the Eucharistic meal is, like the heavenly mana of the wandering tribes of Israel, and the most tangible manifestation of efficacious grace. Hegel’s idea of a spiritual community was first applied to the Church by J.A. Möhler. However, the concept had been prevalent among the Jena circle of German romantics including Novalis, Schelling and Schlegel. Novalis wrote:

    “Harmony is what his spirit strives to promulgate, to extend. He will, even to infinitude, grow more and more harmonious with himself and with his Creation; and at every step, behold the all-efficiency of a high moral Order in the Universe, and what is purest of his Me, come forth into brighter and brighter clearness. The significance of the World is Reason; for her sake is the World here; and when it is grown to be the arena of a child-like, expanding Reason, it will one day become the divine Image of her Activity, the scene of a genuine Church.” – Bd. ii. s. 43-57.

  2. Pingback: Hegel’s Christian Vocabulary | Sapere Aude

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